Burning of rain forests on the rise Deforestation in Amazon jumped 28% this year, worse than in Indonesia


RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil -- In Porto Velho in western Brazil, thick clouds of black smoke have forced airports and schools to shut down. In southern Para state near the Amazon frontier, people gasping for air have collapsed and ended up in hospitals. In the city of Manaus, the sun has disappeared for days at a time.

Twenty years after the goal of rescuing the Amazon rain forest first captured world attention, becoming the pet cause of celebrities and a regular topic in children's schoolbooks, deforestation and the burning of vast territories are again on the increase.

Data in recent weeks suggest that the burning going on in Brazil this year is greater than has occurred in Indonesia, where major cities have been smothered under blankets of smoke that spread to other countries.

Despite the fact that hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent to save the rain forest, burnings in the Amazon region are up 28 percent over last year, according to satellite data, and 1994 deforestation figures, the most recent available, show a 34 percent increase since 1991.

"Deforestation has done nothing but go up," said Stephen Schwartzman of the Environmental Defense Fund, a nonprofit group based in Washington. "Where the most money has gone is where the fires have increased the most."

The group noted that half the fires recorded this year were in Mato Grosso, where the World Bank lent $205 million to save the rain forest in a natural resource management program.

Roughly a fifth of the fires that rage annually between June and October cause new deforestation, and another tenth is burning of ground cover in virgin forests. Scientists say that the Amazon rain forest may be reaching a critical level of dryness, in which standing forest could catch fire and burn out of control.

The World Wildlife Fund found that 93 percent of the original Atlantic rain forest in the northeast had disappeared over the centuries, and some 12 percent to 15 percent of the Amazon rain forest. The report said that Brazil was losing more rain forest each year than any other country on the planet. In addition to the 5,800 square miles a year that satellite images show are deforested each year, the Woods Hole Research Institute estimates that another 4,200 are thinned through logging beneath the forest canopy.

Eduardo Martins, the president of the Brazilian federal environmental agency, said in an interview that the increase in fires, while worrisome, did not result in an increase in deforestation, although the two problems have risen in tandem.

He contended that most fires were set by small farmers who would starve if they could not clear land for planting, and that the environmental damage paled next to fossil fuel emissions in the United States.

Pub Date: 11/02/97

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